Rare is it to spot a crowd anywhere in India, and register anything but paunches – flabby, distended bellies, popping out of sari folds , or pushing against shirt buttons , walking around in daze, waiting to be filled with more junk food or casually – conceived foetuses . It would be simplistic to attribute all these swollen tummies to wheat-induced bloating , or lack of physical exercise. Afterall , rice-eating South Indians are as round-bellied as their northern fellowmen, and quite as shamelessly so. Even millennials , bred on potato chips and Pepsi, have jiggling stomachs and shaking booties. Maybe it’s the spices that we eat, or is it the effect of tropical climate that slows down our metabolism and makes us look like jugs.
Even some coolies have quite some girth around their middle. Heavy –lifting does that to you . Power-lifters are stockier than average persons, and even moderately obese because of high muscle and fat body composition. Coolies , or porters, are a dying breed. Trolley-bags and backpacks have revolutionized luggage-carrying habits. Lifts, slides and escalators on platforms have done away with the requirement of external help in dragging one’s stuff. The once ubiquitous railway coolie, draped in red kurta and sporting a red turban, walking gingerly while balancing three attachies over his head and four bags in his hands, has now virtually become extinct. Even the vasectomy advertisements of yore ,that featured heavy-lifting porters as poster boys of the surgery, have vanished from everywhere, along with the idea of surgery itself. Porters used to charge some extra bucks by promising seats in General Compartments in the good old days. In the past three decades, costs of reserved tickets have not gone up by much , and the need for grabbing seats in General bogeys has virtually vanished. This is another reason why coolies have lost their importance. They are a dying breed that must find mention in the Red List of Endangered Species.
There was a time, not long back, when we were accustomed to filthy railway stations. We had accepted out miserable lot, and had even given up the quest for cleanliness. I remember seeing running dogs and seated cows on platforms till even a decade back. Smoking inside stations, and even inside running trains , was quite in vogue till the beginning of the millennium. Cleanliness was an ideal, fit for Western countries, and you were considered ‘foreign-returned’ if you publicly wished that the platforms were a bit cleaner.
Clean India is a resolve, a process. The size of rats , and turds on tracks, are still as large as they used to be. Leaking water from pipelines turns tracksides into veritable sewers. Stench of rotting piss fills up nostrils and makes one pukish . Mugs inside coach bathrooms are still fastened by chains. If they are not, people take them home when they de-board . Bathrooms are still dirty, if a tad lesser than before , and always have leaking taps. And yet, the intent to become and remain clean can clearly be felt. It is almost as if the station itself is willing you to help it. It is as if you are aware that the Big Brother is watching when you drop litter, and wants you to desist.
The craze for street food and hot , piping tea has come down. People have become more hygiene-conscious over the years. Stations have introduced fire-safety measures and do not allow thela-wallahs to light fire and cook food on the platform. This has hurt the demand for hot samosas, alu bondas or poori-bhaji. Getting down on platforms during journeys to fill water bottles used to be a huge draw. Many an adventurous passenger have missed their trains or caught them running , busy as they used to get in this activity . Bisleri has gradually transformed itself from an item of luxury to object of need. In the absence of tea stalls, vendors now offer either tea-bags or machine-made tea, and neither have the capability to turn on tea-buds. The romance of chai-samosa on platforms is dead.
A goods train passes by at breakneck speed. I have often tried to count their wagons, but always given up midway. Goods trains have brick-like wagons. They are endless in length, and are too arrogant to slow down as they pass through crowded stations . This makes them an object of shock and awe .The platform shakes uncontrollably as this solid steel slides by on tracks.
Books stalls have lost sheen in present times. Children do not hanker after comics , they play games on mobile all the time . Men no longer require newspapers to catch news, women have no use for Saritha and Grihshobha anymore . Moving stalls , which sell magazines, have become rare. Smartphones are one-stop shops which keep everyone engaged. We have lost interest in each other .Mobiles have eaten away whatever warmth we used to feel for each other.
With our billion plus and more, we cannot wish away the sea of humanity that greets us , whatever be the time, wherever we go. All our trains are always fully booked. Busybodies can be seen loitering, running, sitting, sleeping, boarding, de-boarding on the stations at all times.
Amid all this chaos, scores of people can be seen sprawled on the platform, fast asleep, blankets and sheets drawn on their faces. They neither betray any fear of the passers-by, or of railway cops. Fake dignity and decorum have never bothered Indians, rather it is ease and convenience that are our driving forces. Clean platforms are inviting beds for vagabonds and travellers to take naps. Blessed are those who can sleep on the floor with abandon , while millions move around them.